How Color Affects Our Brain
Color is everywhere. It’s how we perceive the world, and each color can convey different meanings to different people. Outside of personal meaning, it’s become popular to attach emotions to various colors, such as how yellow makes us anxious and red makes us excited.
But how much of that is backed by science? How exactly does the spectrum of color affect the brain?
How do we see color?
In plain terms, we see colors when light wavelengths interact with a particular object. Some objects absorb light, while others reflect the wavelengths back. Color then is the brain translating the reflection. The variation of color occurs because different light rays emit greater wavelength than others. Each wavelength is associated with a specific color, and also determines how visible these colors appear from a distance. For example, the color red has the longest wavelength, which means it can be viewed from the greatest distance.
However, the meanings we attach to colors can be determined by a wide variety of things. Culture, societal leanings, personal preference, and even parental or peer influence play significant roles.
For example, white is the most preferred color for a wedding gown in the western hemisphere, but in South Asia, several communities regard it as the color of mourning and are expected to wear white when their loved ones die. Blue is consistently chosen as a universal favorite, yet it frequently gets marketed as a masculine color, signaling products meant for men.
These cultural preferences aren’t based on scientific evidence. They’re born out of centuries of cultural practices and traditions. But research has shown that colors do have more function than just providing visual information about an object. The brain processes colors in both visual and non-visual ways.
The neuroscience of color
As we mentioned, color is how our brain interprets the varying wavelengths reflected off of objects. This translation occurs in the retina, where photoreceptor cells––commonly known as the cones and rods––capture the light and send the information to the brain’s visual cortex. But new research in the area has found that certain retinal ganglion cells send some of those inputs directly to the brain’s hypothalamus, bypassing the visual cortex.
The hypothalamus has no visual functionality, but it does process a huge amount of information gathered from both our internal and external environments. It is our balance center and controls a multitude of bodily functions including our sleep cycle, body temperature, and heart rate. It also controls the release and flow of several neurotransmitters and hormones. In short, the hypothalamus is directly responsible for our moods and mental well-being.
While this research is related to color, it’s important to note that the color we’re perceiving with these cells is not visual––meaning they do not form images in our brain the way our cones and rods do. However, they contribute to our vision in several ways.
First, we perceive different light wavelengths in more ways than simply visual. The wavelengths of these colors provide certain types of information to our brains. These retinal ganglion cells control our pupillary response, play a large role in our circadian rhythms, and help us determine other visual acuity like spatial processing and interpreting light levels.
For example, exposure to blue and green light in the morning stimulates the release of cortisol, which helps us wake up. But the same lights, if exposed to before bed, can inhibit the release of melatonin, a neurotransmitter that helps us sleep. There’s also research showing how green light stimulates the release of serotonin and works to relieve pain by altering the endogenous opioid system.
What this tells us is that how we process color is seldom as simple as “green makes us calm” and “yellow makes us anxious”. However, there are some data-backed ways in which we can incorporate color into our lives to make our brain perform better.
Improve your brain performance with colors
Color-code learning/work materials for better working memory
Because color gets processed in multiple areas of the brain, it doesn’t depend solely on the visual cortex to process and then gain meaning. This means color is easier for our brains to interpret than other visual elements.
When we color code things we need to remember, it makes it easier for our brain to associate with it. Our brain reads and interprets colors faster than text. Multiple studies have shown that our brain will recognize a shade of color to an assigned task faster than text alone. This means we have a better chance of remembering an appointment if we color code that information.
Look at something green for better focus
Multiple studies have shown over the past decades that looking at the color green can have a restful and rejuvenating effect on our eyes and mind. In a notable and much-cited study led by Dr. Kate Lee from the University of Melbourne, 150 university students performed a boring but meticulous task for hours. One group was allowed short breaks to look at an image of a greenery-laden rooftop, while the others looked out at a plain concrete roof. The group looking at the greenery performed significantly better with fewer errors and were concluded to have better concentration.
Dr. Lee attributes this to nature’s attention-restorative abilities. And other studies support this. Multiple studies have shown that a workspace with an abundance of green results in better productivity and focus in employees. This makes sense when we consider that green is not only the dominant color in nature, it’s also easy on the eye. It sits right in the middle of the spectrum in terms of wavelength, making it easy for our brain to perceive.
Have a balanced usage of red and orange
Sitting right next to each other, the colors red and orange have been shown to increase heart rate and stimulate our brain. These responses generally lead to higher levels of energy and activity. But over-exposure can cause other problems.
In many cultures, red is associated with danger and death. So while the color red can stimulate our energy levels, it can also trigger our fight-or-flight response. An increased heart rate sustained over a long period of time can cause blood circulation problems. It can also lock us in a state of overstimulation putting us at risk for anxiety.
To maintain a balanced dose of positivity and stimulation, only include red and orange tones in measured amounts. Having these minimal, pops of color will help boost our energy levels without overwhelming our stress responses.
Yes to blue walls, no to blue screens.
Blue has one of the shortest wavelengths on the spectrum and sits on the opposite end to red. It has been shown to bring down stimulation, both visually and psychologically. Medium to light tones of blue can induce calm and rest, while dark tones may feel gloomy or serious.
But when talking about blue light, the effect can be devastating on our sleep cycle. That’s because while it has the shortest wavelengths, it also carries the most energy. Blue light, in brighter shades and close proximity, can cause confusion in our brain, which associates this color with the sunlight. Our natural response is to increase the cortisol and decrease the melatonin, which is key in waking us up.
Unfortunately, because blue light is in so many artificial sources, including most of our screens, we are exposed to it outside of natural daylight hours. This added exposure can cause excessive cortisol production, disrupting not only our sleep cycles but leading to other stress-induced disorders. To minimize these negative effects, we should make a concerted effort to reduce screen exposure by at least an hour before bed.
Colors can mean a myriad of things to each of us. Our individual preference makes it practically impossible to develop a universal theory about the cultural meaning of color. However, we know colors impact the brain in a variety of ways. Researchers have only begun to explore the vast territory that the science of color promises and new data is being added to the lexicon even as we speak, evolving our understanding of how color impacts our brain and our lives.